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Witan

WITAN

An Anglo-Saxon term that meant wise men, persons learned in the law; in particular, the king's advisers or members of his council.

In England, between the sixth and tenth centuries, a person who advised an Anglo-Saxon king was called a witan, or wise man. A witan's basic duty was to respond when the king asked for advice on specific issues. A witan gave his advice in the Witenagemote, or assembly of wise men. This assembly was the forerunner of the English Parliament.

The Witenagemote was the great council of the Anglo-Saxons in England, comprising the aristocrats of the kingdom, along with bishops and other high ecclesiastical leaders. This council advised and aided the king in the general administration of government. The Witenagemote attested to the king's grants of land to churches or laypersons and consented to his proclamation of new laws or new statements of ancient customs. The council also assisted the king in dealing with rebels and persons suspected of disloyalty. The king determined both the composition of the council and its meeting times.

The Witenagemote generally met in the open air in or near some city or town. Members were notified by public notice or particular summons issued by the king's select council. When the throne was vacant, the body also met without notice to elect a new king.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the council was called the commune concillium, or common council of the realm. This was transformed into the Curia Regis, or King's Council, and by the late thirteenth century, it was called Parliament. The character of the institution also changed during this period. It became a court of last resort, especially for determining disputes between the king and his nobles and, ultimately, from all inferior tribunals.

cross-references

English Law.

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witan

witan is the plural of Old English wita, a wise man, a counsellor. It was used by Anglo-Saxons sometimes in composition with gemot (an assembly) to indicate a royal or national conciliar meeting. The significance of these meetings must, over a long period, have varied. Some have seen all such conciliar assemblies as essentially under royal control: to the contrary was the Victorian view that these could be ‘nationally’ representative. Bede, writing c.731, certainly believed that decision on the conversion of a kingdom could be the subject of possibly formal, conciliar debate. The 11th-cent. evidence is just enough to indicate that some conciliar meetings had elements of formality in summons and procedure, perhaps enough to indicate some conciliar independence. The nature of councils in between these periods is even more obscure; but participation in royal elections must sometimes have been important.

James Campbell

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witan

witan another term for witenagemot; the name represents the Old English plural of wita ‘wise man’.

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witan

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